Toronto police already record the race of those being stopped, so why can't we get a look at those numbers?
Driving while black. You hear that phrase all the time from drivers puzzled over why they’ve been stopped by the police and unable to think of any reason other than their skin colour.
Take the case of Winston Williams. He has good reason to be suspicious of the police. Four years ago his son Wayne was shot and killed by Toronto cops.
But at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations’ conference on the use of lethal force, Williams rises to recall how he was driving along the 401 in his Volvo when a police cruiser pulled up behind him with its lights flashing, so he pulled over.
“When he looked at (my licence) and saw that everything was in order, I asked him what did he stop me for,” Williams says. “He told me I was driving in the right lane too long.”
Whether it’s on the street, in a vehicle or coming through customs at the airport, the perception among blacks has long been that they’re more likely than whites to be stopped by authorities because of racial stereotyping.
And it’s the overwhelming anecdotal evidence that’s fuelling a reconsideration of a sensitive issue: breaking down police stats such as citizen stops on the basis of race.
Police are adamant that they don’t collect such info as a matter of principle. “Our experience has been that it’s very dangerous to release statistics on race,” says sergeant Jim Muscat. “We don’t even compile them.”
But it turns out that “colour” is indeed a description category on contact cards (known as 208s) used by officers when they stop people on the street or in their cars. In last summer’s controversial “community action policing” (CAP) program, police filled out 25,000 208s city-wide.
Sergent Peter Harmsen, a crime management coordinator at 52 Division, says the info is catalogued in a computer database by police crime analysts. But, he says, the force is not interested in compiling race data.
“Certainly (colour) is one of the statistics that’s there,” he says. “But we don’t look to see how many of these cards are generated on men or women, or blacks, whites or Asians. We don’t do that.
“Can it be done? Yeah, I guess so. But that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re trying to match up victim descriptions with suspect descriptions.”
Of course, police in T.O. have learned to their chagrin that race-based stats are too hot to handle. You can thank police chief Julian Fantino for that. When he compiled and released race-based crime stats a decade ago as a staff inspector in North York, he caused a huge rift between the police and the black community that’s still unhealed.
As a result, the police services board later introduced a bylaw that put a stop to the police collection of all race-based statistics.
For his part, police board chair Norm Gardner says the board hasn’t received many complaints of racial profiling, and he’s not aware of a single officer who’s been disciplined for it since he’s been on the board.
“I don’t think it’s not happening,” he says. “If a complaint is laid (regarding racial stereotyping in police stops), obviously it’s going to be investigated.”
What hard evidence there is suggests the anecdotal complaints should be taken seriously. U of T criminologist Scott Wortley has done survey research on police stops that has suggested that in Toronto blacks are being stopped more than whites.
His sample survey for the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System in the mid-90s revealed that “more black Metro Toronto residents (28 per cent) than white (18) or Chinese residents (15) reported being stopped by the police in the past two years.”
He suggests that data collection could act as a deterrent. “If (police) know they’re being watched, they’re less likely to make the arbitrary decision to go stop some guy and see if he’s up to no good, because they know it’s going to be recorded and it may come back to haunt them,” Wortley says.
That’s the hope of many activists who now say they are sympathetic to the compiling of such stats if only the community has some way of controlling their use.
Punam Khosla of the Committee to Stop Target Policing suggests such data collection and analysis could be done on a trial basis, with strict public oversight, as a component of CAP. “There’s a real concern that this type of targeting is just the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
Herman Stewart of the Jamaican Canadian Association sees good and bad aspects of data collection.
“We are of the opinion and surveys have confirmed that police stop more black youth than anybody else,” he says. “But I could see (the police) manipulating the data.’
Julian Falconer, legal counsel for the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, thinks mandatory data collection is “a great idea.” However, the information would have to be tightly controlled by a third party who has the trust of the community.
But while groups in Canada weigh the pros and cons, the U.S. is charging ahead. South of the border it’s widely accepted that to combat police racial profiling you need the data on who they’re stopping.
Several states already require that police record all stops, and include the person’s race and the reason they were stopped.
President Bill Clinton has ordered federal law enforcement agencies to collect race and gender data on stops.
There is currently a bill before Congress instructing the U.S. attorney-general to collect data on police stops, including race, from a sample of jurisdictions to study the extent of racial profiling.
And the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, along with a number of other groups, are actively lobbying for the collection of race data in state racial profiling laws.
Says Olivia Araiza of the ACLU in San Francisco. “Studies have shown that, whereas people of colour are disproportionately pulled over and searched, they are no more likely to have drugs and illegal possessions on them than whites.’
But is it all a moot point? It’s obvious that the political will isn’t there to force police here to report stops. “Tell me one good politician who’s going to make that thought stick,” says former police services board chair Susan Eng. “That’s your problem.”